Tech Bloc Aims to Elevate San Antonio’s Role in Tech Innovation

San Antonio—Even if it seems unlikely, there is a common thread in these events: a women’s luncheon, a report on whether a city should annex county land, rallies for workers, startup competitions, a railroad project.

Each project is being spearheaded by Tech Bloc, a tech-focused nonprofit in San Antonio that aims to promote the local tech community and the city as a whole.

The group started with a relatively simple concept in May 2015: Create a political bloc to influence public and private decisions affecting tech, according to an announcement of the group’s first event.

The fire that ignited its organization was lit after the city of San Antonio attempted to regulate on-demand car service companies Uber and Lyft, according to Tech Bloc executive director Marina Gavito. The companies nearly left the city for good, before they reached an operational agreement with city leaders in late 2015.

“We were trying to explain to city leaders and officials that it impacts tech companies’ ability to recruit people here,” Gavito says, noting in particular the appeal that those apps have to tech talent. “We got over that hurdle, and Uber and Lyft came back a couple of months after (Tech Bloc) formed.”

That experience proved poignant to Gavito and other local tech leaders: Like math and poetry are intertwined, the San Antonio tech community was incomplete without a group to articulate its needs.

Since then, Tech Bloc has expanded its reach with little things, such as a weekly newsletter penned by Gavito, and monthly community meetups for its members. The group has bigger projects in the works, too. This week, Tech Bloc announced five finalists for Tech Fuel, a startup competition awarding $50,000 in prize money from the Bexar County government. (The contest is co-hosted with Techstars Cloud Managing Director Blake Yeager.) Tech Bloc is also helping to organize a luncheon for women, with local tech executives speaking, on March 1.

The funding for the Tech Fuel event came from a $1 million fund created by the Bexar County Commissioners Court to promote technology in the region.

“San Antonio’s tech community was very much in silos. You had your Rackspace bubble; you had your UTSA (University of Texas at San Antonio) bubble; and you had your cyber-bubble,” Gavito says. “We’re all just kind of in different worlds, but when we came together we realized there are a lot of us, and that we can partner.”

The organization is not without its interests, of course. Formed as a 501(c)6 nonprofit, known as a business league, Tech Bloc is by definition designed to promote business.

Tech Bloc is funded by local tech companies, in particular Rackspace (NYSE: RAX), the cloud computing giant that has become a barometer of success for the local industry. Rackspace provides donations to fund the group’s operations, as do other local groups, including Geekdom, WP Engine, and Codeup.

“As our CEO of Rackspace says, when Tech Bloc wins, Rackspace wins,” Gavito says. “When Tech Bloc starts building a tech ecosystem in San Antonio, Rackspace has nothing but benefits to gain from that.”

The group’s board and co-founders include Lew Moorman of Rackspace, David Heard of SecureLogix, Lorenzo Gomez of Geekdom and The 80/20 Foundation, Tom Cuthbert of Adometry (acquired by Google in 2014), and David Spencer of Pryor Medical, among others.

Rackspace also pays Gavito’s salary, since she’s technically still an employee of the company. With an ability to understand technology, as well as degrees in financial, systems, and operations management, Gavito says she found during her time at Rackspace that she was able to translate between colleagues on the business and tech sides of the operations.

Now, as Gavito has transitioned that experience to Tech Bloc, the group is looking for work to do that stretches even beyond tech. Tech Bloc has paid $40,000 for a study that examines the value, or the lack of value, in using annexation of nearby land as a means of expansion for San Antonio. Tech Bloc also wants to advocate for the completion of a rail line that connects San Antonio and nearby Austin—something discussed in the region for years.

And Tech Bloc is targeting the 2017 state budget, particularly money that could be used for developing San Antonio’s downtown, Gavito says.

For Gavito, making improvements to the city broadly, as well as promoting its economy, has a trickle-down benefit to tech. That’s something that Austin has done, she says, and the result has been that people think of Austin as a tech hub. Companies consider relocating there, and employees want to live there.

Part of the higher social status that Austin holds over San Antonio is based in the type of company each city boasts: Businesses known for their brand, like Facebook and Google, have offices in Austin. Meanwhile, San Antonio is known for companies that do behind-the-scenes work, like Rackspace, Gavito says. Tech Bloc represents San Antonio’s pursuit of a more cohesive tech space, she says.

“Since Tech Bloc formed, several people from Austin were coming to us saying, ‘Wow, how did y’all do this? We could never pull something like this off in Austin,’” Gavito says. “I think it speaks to the need.”

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow @xconholley

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